Whether you own a wind or brass instrument, have taken a math or technical course at CCV, or have heard the St. J Band play in the bandstand, chances are you have met David Askren.
David, a soft spoken, easy going man with salt and peppery gray hair and beard, is a trumpet player and owner of Kiss My Winds and Brass, a musical instrument repair business. He is a highly qualified instrument repair technician with a knack for customer service.
But before this became David’s life, he had quite a different one, including a 34-year career as software engineer working on some impressive projects including: the Voyager unmanned space project; medical devices like pulse oximeters and capnometers; and software that scans PCs and reports what hardware and software is installed for large companies with 75,000 or more computers.
Upon entering his current workshop in the basement of his St. Johnsbury home, he greets his customers with a warm, down-to-earth welcome. He carefully removes injured instruments from their cases and handles them like newborns, gently inspecting keys, pads and dents. He tells the customer what he can do to repair or restore, if possible. His estimate is reasonable and when the instrument is ready for pick up, he goes over an itemized receipt of what he did to each part. Not only is David an expert at his craft, he enjoys seeing how his work restores his customers’ happiness when they get their beloved instruments back.
David grew up mostly in Southern California. His family moved a several times as his father changed jobs. Junior high and high school years were spent in the San Fernando Valley. David did his undergraduate work at Occidental College in Los Angeles earning a Bachelor’s Degree in mathematics in 1976. During his junior year, he also took some software engineering/programming classes at CalTech through an exchange program the two colleges have. His graduate work was at UCLA where he received a Master’s Degree in Computer Science in 1981.
In 1993, David moved to St. Johnsbury and a year later he began working as a software engineer at Tally Systems in Lebanon, N.H. In 2008, his employer decided to cut costs by closing his office and moving the jobs to India.
“This put 30 of us out of work and was the fourth layoff for me during my career,” he says.“We also had to train the engineers in India in order to get our severance packages.”
David said it soon became obvious that no one wanted to hire a middle-aged software engineer with his level of expertise, and he felt burned out. He decided it was time to pursue something else.
“Over the years, there were a couple of times I thought of pursuing instrument repair but every time I checked, there were just three schools in the U.S. and one in Canada,” he said.“I would have had to relocate for up to two years for the training and that was not feasible with a family.”
On a whim, he checked again and discovered a new place called CIOMIT (Colorado Institute of Music Instrument Technology) in Castle Rock, Co. Founded by a master technician named Daniel Parker, CIOMIT offered training in a way that matched the student’s schedule.
Since David was unemployed, he applied for TAA (Trade Adjustment Assistance) status. This is additional money above unemployment that can be used for new job training, but the Department of Labor informed him that those funds could not be used for self-employment. So he used part of his severance package for the initial training and then received two VSAC non-degree grants for some of the online training.
“One of the smartest things I think I’ve done is that I did not borrow any money to set up the business,” he said.“So, I own all my tools and parts and intend to keep it that way.”
“Dan [Parker] and I had several lengthy phone calls in which he sounded me out to make sure I was serious and had the physical dexterity to do the work before he accepted me as a student,” David said.“I went to CIOMIT for three weeks in March 2009 for what he called power courses. These were intense, one-on-one sessions with him and his other technician all day Monday through Friday.”
CIOMIT also is the only place to offer online classes. Parker trains the student over a webcam. At the completion of the course, the student sends the instrument to Parker for grading. If it is up-to-snuff, the student earns their certificate. David has received certificates for repairing saxophones, oboes, trombones, and French horn rotors.
With CIOMIT training under his belt, it was time to set up his business. He registered Kiss My Winds and Brass with the state of Vermont, made a business plan, secured a domain name, purchased tools and parts, remodeled his basement to accommodate his shop, and advertised. Of course the opening included musical entertainment and food. Slowly, the news about David’s services began to spread. He soon had his first repair -- a flute.
David’s clientele is a mixture of private customers, local bands/orchestras, and schools.
“This business really does grow by word-of-mouth,” he says. Only about 5 percent of the general population are musicians so traditional advertising doesn’t yield many results.
“People want to take it someplace where they know it will be repaired properly. So they ask their fellow musicians or school music directors where they can go.”
Grateful for this part-time work, David maintains an active website which has a community bulletin board where anyone in the community can send information about music events, instruments to sell/buy, teachers who give lessons or musicians offering their services, as well as instruments for rent.
In August 2009, with a slowly starting business, David applied at CCV for an algebra instructor position. He had taught a couple of times before and CCV is just down the street from his house. He didn’t get the position right away, but, they liked him enough from the interview to offer him a part-time position tutoring math in their Learning Center. He did that during the fall 2009 semester and made a very good impression. They offered him an algebra class for the 2010 spring semester. He did well with that course and with his technology background, CCV started offering him more work teaching some of their technology courses.
David expertly balances his time performing, teaching and repairing. Over the past six and a half years, he has repaired approximately 350 brass and wind instruments. He has worked on some percussion instruments and will look at almost anything, but he won’t attempt a repair if he feels he can’t do a good job of it. Customer service truly is a priority for David as he occasionally lets a customer he knows drop off or pick up an instrument when he’s closed or he’ll take phone calls in the evening. He’s even done emergency repairs on the 4th of July a couple of times.
He has had a few challenging repairs over the years.
“I repaired a trumpet that somehow went out a second story window,” he says.“It was a mess, but I got it back to playing condition. I also rehabbed a 1942 Conn baritone saxophone that had been sitting in a closet for about 40 years. It had posts that had broken off, bent pad cups and was a mess in general. It took three weeks but the young lady who owns it is now happily playing it in her college jazz band in Massachusetts.”
Music has long been a part of David’s life. His mother was a musician and when she didn’t have an instrument in her hand, she was playing classical music on the stereo. So naturally, David’s musical interest started with piano lessons in second grade.
“I guess that instilled a love of music in me,” he said.
He has a variety of musical instruments today including an Everett console piano and a Bach Stradivarius trumpet. He also owns numerous instruments for rent and that he did his repair training on: flutes, clarinets, alto saxophones, trumpets/cornets, trombones, and a French horn.
David plays the piano mostly for himself although he has played it in pieces with the Northeast Kingdom Community Orchestra. His primary instrument is the trumpet and he plays year round with the orchestra, the St. Johnsbury Band and the Danville Town Band.
“I’ve also played with the St. J Band at the Big E a couple of times, the Tunbridge Fair and twice at the Farmer’s Night concert series at the Statehouse in Montpelier,” David said.
David’s calendar is very full with performing and volunteering his time as one of the managers of the NEK Classical Series performances. They bring world class chamber groups as well as solo performers to play locally such as the recent performance of the Tesla String Quartet and the upcoming January performance of Lithuanian pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute.
David’s professional life has changed quite a bit over the years, but has been enriched with this deeper community connection that radiates when you hear him talk about his work.
“It’s also just very gratifying to see the smiles and delight on the customer’s face when they see their instrument back in good shape, especially on the kids,” he says.“Music is important and it’s something I like being a part of to bring it to others.”
David has been stopped at the grocery store by customers thanking him again and telling him how much they appreciated work he’s done.
“That’s definitely not something that happens when you write a software program,” he says.
Visit www.kissmywindsandbrass.com for more information.